Hot Potato: Food for Thought
Why Johnny Can't...
Foreign Languages
1997 September 22
Monday
It is symbolic of the problems in education that schools traditionally begin foreign language instruction at exactly that age at which it is no longer possible to learn new languages easily. It is now pretty well established that kids up to about the age of puberty simply absorb languages by osmosis. Plop a kid into a new environment and he'll be speaking the language in a couple of months. Put a teenager in French class and she'll be lucky if she can ever get a Paris taxi driver to understand a word she says.

Why is it, then, that educators try to teach kids languages only after they have lost the ability to learn languages easily?

It is useful to be able to speak fluently in a second language for a variety of reasons. Not the least of the advantages is the availability of a second set of thought patterns that arise with learning another language. US commerce is hampered because most Americans only speak English. It is not unusual for Europeans to get along well in three or four languages. It is one of the reasons that countries like The Netherlands have fared so well as trading nations.

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